They landed at the broken edge of the Bifrost, only feet from where the shattered crystal dropped off into the abyss. Thor moved without thinking, to place himself between Loki and the edge.
Loki glanced at him over the gag, his eyes, Thor thought, sardonic and mocking; but he let go his end of the Tesseract's container, and made no move toward Thor or the drop-off.
Heimdall had seen their departure from Earth; there was a phalanx of Einherjar guards waiting. The captain was Eirikur, a good solid soldier of staunch courage if limited humor. He saluted Thor and stepped forward, holding out his hands. "I was commanded to take the Tesseract from you, upon your arrival."
Thor placed the device in the captain's gauntleted hands. Their journey completed, its blue glow faded to a faint shimmer. Eirikur nodded acceptance of the burden, said, "The All-Father would speak with you, my lord Thor."
"Tell him I will be there, as soon I've seen to my bro—as soon as I've escorted the prisoner to his place," Thor replied, forcing his voice to boom to drown out the fault. Eirikur only nodded, crisp and certain, but Thor looked back expecting Loki's jeering eyes upon him, to see him smiling under the muzzle, as ever he smirked when Thor misspoke himself.
—"Oh, come now, Thor, can't you recite it clearer than that? You've been drilled in this lesson twice as many times as I, and know it not half as well—" and then Thor would repeat the phrases of the vassal lord's oath, loud and firmly correct, just to prove Loki wrong—
But Loki was silenced now, and when Thor tried to meet his eyes Loki looked down. Head down, chained hands down; submissive like a whipped dog, and it made Thor's stomach turn, the more sour because he thought Loki might be doing it only for that effect.
Thor raised his hand. "Come," he said, and obediently Loki walked with him, head still down. The phalanx split. Half the guard followed Eirikur with his most precious and dangerous burden to the throne room. The other half kept pace behind Thor and his most silent and dangerous prisoner, down the many, many stairs to the cell at the world's bottom that would now serve as Loki's chambers. There was a lift for the guards, but tradition held that new prisoners went to the dungeon on foot.
The Einherjar stood waiting in the corridor above, while Thor brought Loki down the lowest tunnel and opened the lock. His blood acted as key; only the royal family were able to open this cell, save those members imprisoned within it. At Thor's gesture the barred barricade set in the floor rearranged itself in a chime of metal on metal, like swords meeting on a battlefield, to make a stairway down into the bright daylit cell.
Loki took these last steps as willingly as he had the rest of his descent. Thor followed him down, too closely on his heels, so that when Loki stopped and turned at the bottom, his elbow almost bumped Thor's side. Thor jerked back hastily—his gut was still tender from where Loki had stuck his dagger—and Loki moved as quickly, retreating a step to make a safe distance between them. He angled his head in what might have been apology, then raised his bound hands before Thor could ask him to do so.
Thor undid the cuffs of the chains, watchful for Loki's quick hands to draw a weapon from some hidden place; but Loki only circled the wrist of one hand with the other, rubbing absently as if the braces had chafed, though his skin was unmarked. He turned away to look out the wide windows at the rocky crags of Asgard's underside. He did not reach up to his covered mouth.
Thor's new friends had questioned the gag. Bruce Banner especially had raised a critical brow as well as pointed questions, citing Midgardian conventions of courtesy due even enemy prisoners, and Steve Rogers had concurred. Thor had been forced to explain that the gag was intended as neither punishment nor humiliation, for all it might inflict both; that instead it was plain protection, same as the chains, against any spells Loki might cast.
"He needs to speak to do his magic?" Banner had asked skeptically, and Tony Stark put in, "Looked to me like he just needed to wave his pointy stick around."
Except the scepter was not Loki's magic—the scepter was not Loki's. Only Thor had found that difficult to say, as if it were a lie, denying what Loki had done with the weapon. And had not Loki wielded the scepter—taken it as his, for all he should not have? So maybe it had truthfully been his after all. A new tool, to match his new will.
But Loki no longer had the scepter. And bound and gagged his magic was sealed, and he'd made no effort to break that seal, either on Earth or now on Asgard.
This chamber—his prison cell—was warded against his arts, though Loki always could find the chinks in any defense. Still, Thor only hesitated a moment before offering, "Loki, do you give me your parole, that as a prisoner you'll not try to work any magic?"
Loki's head turned back sharply, eyes rising to search Thor's face; then he nodded. Thor reached behind his head, undid the clasps—easy for him, though they wouldn't have released for Loki—and slipped off the muzzle.
The first thing Loki said, after he had swiped his tongue over his lips to wet them, was, "You shouldn't trust me."
His voice was a little hoarse with the dryness of his mouth, and quiet; it held little of the malice he'd cursed Thor with on Midgard, though no other feeling to speak of, either.
Thor sighed heavily. "I know," he said, "but it will be more comfortable for you if you don't try to escape, or anything of the sort."
Loki turned away again to survey the small chamber, his dispassionate gaze drifting over the shielded windows, the narrow cot and the screened commode in the corner, without any flicker of opinion. His eyes had burned so fey and fierce on Midgard; their coolness now should comfort Thor, but he found it as disturbing. Calm acceptance suited Loki no better than madness.
"I know it's not much," Thor said, more awkward in the face of Loki's silence than he'd like to be, "but perhaps later, after the trial—"
"Trial?" Loki arched one black brow. "Why should there be any trial?"
"Because there was a crime," Thor said. "A great one—
"But a trial is to determine the guilt of the accused," Loki said, cool as ever, "and my guilt is certain. So deliberation can be forwent, and the king proceed directly to the sentence. This is not a jail; it's only the holding cell before the execution." He stretched his arms behind his back, subtly working out kinks, licked his lips and said with a single degree more animation, "I do wish that Iron Man had given me that drink; quite rude of him, to withdraw the offer after the fact. But then one can't expect mortals to have much time for courtesies, I suppose."
"I must go speak with Father now," Thor said, taking the gag and chains and climbing back up, the metal stairs ascending with him, leaving Loki standing in the center of his cell with no exit.
The Tesseract was set on a pedestal beside Odin's throne, burning with its deceptive blue light—its glow seemed dull, but looking into it for too long made the eyes ache, like staring right at the sun. Thor would rather look at it than his father's enraged face, however; the aching blue helped him keep his voice steady, rather than rising with his own fury. "He should have a trial—have the chance to speak for himself, for what he did!"
"Even his silver tongue could not find the words to excuse high treason!" Odin roared back. "He attacked a realm below, declared war on a people under our power, in collusion with a power hostile to us—and he did it in the name of Asgard!"
Thor squared his jaw rather than wince. "I am Loki of Asgard"—Thor should not have said that; should not have offered his entire testimony of what the humans had showed him of Loki's capture of the Tesseract. But his father had asked for the story as Thor had seen it, so Thor had given his account, honestly and complete, knowing that Heimdall would have seen all anyway. But even Heimdall only described a part of what he witnessed, since otherwise he could speak for all his life without pausing for breath and still not say all he saw. And Thor might too have left out a few inconsequential details, had he thought earlier to do so.
"The Chitauri are not hostile to us," Thor said instead. At least, as he recalled his history, there had never been open conflict between Asgard and the Chitauri empire, or domain, or whatever they called their worldless home beyond the realms.
"They attacked a lower realm, attempted to claim the Tesseract for their own," Odin said. "And whose idea was that, whispered to them in the depths of their dark hives—whose voice might have inspired them to such folly?"
"That, you don't know," Thor protested. "The Chitauri might've convinced Loki to attack. We don't know how it happened that he allied with them; Heimdall couldn't see him, after he fell." Not until Loki had been illuminated in the Tesseract's light.
"No hoard of insect-men could convince him!" Odin declared, and then his voice sank, even as he did, wearily dropping into his throne. "No one can convince Loki of anything he's not already decided to do," he said, weighted down with truth Thor could not deny. Loki had only ever appeared less stubborn than Thor himself because Loki's will went in so many more directions, and he would switch between them to suit himself; but all the many channels of his mind could not be changed.
Before, at least; but the Loki that Thor had faced on Earth had been changed, his branching streams of thoughts overflowing, submerged, their courses lost under the flood of his madness.
Thor looked from the pedestal to Odin on his throne. His father's face was pale, sweat-sheened and ill-looking, its right side cast in cold blue by the Tesseract's light. It had taken much from him to send Thor to Midgard without the Bifrost, and while the Tesseract had powered their return, Odin's will had guided them, over the vast distance between the worlds.
"We should discuss this later, Father," Thor said. "This evening, or tomorrow. For now you should rest. Loki is here now; his fate can be decided in the days to come."
Odin looked at Thor without replying immediately, a thoughtful look that Thor of late was growing accustomed to. It used to be that whenever he argued with his father there would be much shouting and storming, the raising of voices and weapons. But when Heimdall had witnessed the Tesseract's theft and Thor had suggested he be sent to Midgard, Odin had not denied him; instead he had looked at him thus and acquiesced. And now, too, he took Thor's measure, and then nodded.
"But it will have to be decided," Odin said, though he sounded no more eager for the decision than Thor, and from that Thor drew some portion of hope.
Thor's friends met him outside the throne room. Sif and the Three were eager for news. From Heimdall's terse reports they knew about the Tesseract and Loki's alliance with the Chitauri, but little else. Thor walked with them and related broadly his brief time on Earth and the new allies he'd made himself.
Volstagg envied his description of the shawarma's unique and delectable flavors. Hogun was impressed by Clint Barton's marksmanship, and Sif by the Lady Natasha Romanoff's prowess in battles of both body and mind; both expressed the wish to meet them, should circumstances allow. Fandral was less taken by Thor's account of Steve Rogers—"I believe women would see him as comely as you, and broader in the shoulders, for all he's mortal, though apparently long-lived"—and Tony Stark—"I cannot say if he's as handsome, but charming for certain, though most of his words are more inexplicable than an elvish curse..."
They all were surprised, if disbelieving, to hear of the strength of Bruce Banner's other self, though Thor exaggerated not the slightest, and perhaps underplayed it; it was hard to admit even to himself that Mjolnir swung with all his might had hardly slowed the being. They were interested, too, in the man who led these warriors—"Whether he could fight himself, I did not see," Thor said of Nick Fury, "but he directed our strength with authority and wisdom; perhaps he traded his eye for it as well. I would serve under his command again, should Earth request it."
Of their heroic deeds in battle aboard the airship and the city, Thor related with enthusiasm, if not as pretty words as a proper storyteller might manage. He omitted any mention of the general leading the invasion. How much of Loki's role had spread beyond Heimdall and Odin, Thor didn't know.
His friends could not return his tales with their own; little had happened in Asgard in the few days Thor had been absent, especially when Odin's attentions had all been on Midgard. So once Thor was finished with his recounting, it wasn't long before Fandral ended up saying, "So, Thor, what of—"
He stopped abruptly, either due to Sif or Hogun's glare, or Volstagg jostling his elbow as if by accident, or else he realized it himself. A moment of silence followed Fandral's mouth snapping shut, before Hogun broke it, speaking as he did because he had to. "What of the traitor?" he asked, not cold but steady, as grim Hogun ever was.
So they had heard Odin from outside the throne room after all; or else it was common knowledge in the palace. "Loki is imprisoned in the palace dungeon, and will remain so, until his exec...until a sentence is pronounced," Thor said. Which really only used more words to say the same thing. There was but one sentence for treason, and as Loki had said, there was no doubt of his guilt. Trial or no trial, the outcome would be the same. Even if Thor had not witnessed his crimes, Heimdall had, and Heimdall's testimony to the king was incontrovertible, as sacrosanct as what Odin witnessed with his own eye.
Though if Loki were tried, if he were given a chance to speak—there was no defense he could offer for his actions, but if he argued them as he had to Thor—if Odin could see for himself that Loki's crimes had been not an act of rational betrayal, not malevolent conspiracy but the unbalanced violence of a mind given way...
...Though Loki had not seemed unbalanced, not for all of it. On the cliffs, yes, and in the chaos of the city attack. But his eye and hand had been steady, when he had stabbed his glowing scepter into the back of the man Phil Coulson, friend of Thor's friends; when he had hit the button to send Thor in the glass cage plummeting—while it might not have killed him—probably would not have killed him—Loki had thought it might, and done it anyway.
But then, didn't Loki always have to do things, just to see if he could do them, just to see what would happen, forever curious of how far a limit might be pressed. Climbing trees as boys, and he would dare Thor to venture further out upon a branch to reach the ripest fruit, prodding Thor to inch out bit by bit as they'd been told not to do, until the narrowing limb cracked under him. And Loki lunged and caught his hand before he could fall, laughing even as he groaned and whined that Thor's weight would pull his arm from its socket, "Ooph, no wonder it broke, you eat too much!" but Thor knew even then that if he had been smaller, Loki only would have teased him to go out further.
And wasn't that a sort of madness in itself, to never be satisfied with following an elder's rule or guessing at the strength of a tree branch, but always having to test it to be sure?
The dark talk of their old comrade's crimes cast a pall of silence over their conversation; or perhaps it was that Thor's friends did not care to interrupt the musing quiet he'd fallen into. Thor saw them glancing at one another, searching for what to say, and spared them their gentle effort, offering a smile in thanks, with, "I'm sorry, but I must excuse myself, my friends; I've yet to visit my mother since returning."
His friends nodded to him in relief. "Give the Lady Frigga our respects," Sif said politely, and they let him continue on his way alone.